Books for Writers

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I'm a sucker for books on writing. Sometimes, I even read them. Stephen King's book "On Writing" is a classic. I also recommend just about anything by Lawrence Block, whether it's his noir fiction or essays on writing from his years as a columnist for Writer's Digest.

There's no shortage of books on writing, and probably every writer has their favorites. My writer buddy Tal Klein ("The Punch Escrow") recommended two books for me: "Save the Cat" by the late great Blake Snyder and Robert Mckee's "Story." While both focus on screenwriting, these books are also appropriate for genre fiction, games, radio plays etc. They're easy to read and have a mix of practical advice, technique and motivation. They also do a good job analyzing stories such as The Godfather, Chinatown and others. These books are also available on Audible, which is particularly helpful for those with a long commute and not enough time to read.

Snyder and McKee put heavy emphasis on a standard 3 act story structure with key moments along the way. They didn't invent this model, but they are probably the best at demonstrating in practical ways how to apply these ideas to develop a stronger story. 

While some might fear that following a "Hollywood formula" will ruin their creative endeavor, I found it very helpful to understand techniques that keep the story moving along. (Scenes that don't move the story along and don't have dramatic conflict need to be cut!) In my view, having a good structure helps more than it hurts, and learning how to raise the stakes and add dramatic tension is as important in a novel as it is in film.

Your mileage may vary, but after listening to these books on Audible, I was able to strengthen my work-in-progress novel considerably.  Now back to work!


BBC 4 Radio - Game Over

  BBC game over

Prolific game designer and IF author Emily Short has written her first play for radio entitled "Game Over" now available on BBC 4 Radio. I was lucky enough to be traveling in Canada where the show is accessible.

I'm a fan of Emily Short's interactive fiction and I appreciate her efforts to write about the game industry in her analysis of games, her reviews of books and now in dramatic form. "Game Over" is an interesting take on the industry as it describes an indie game developer's attempt to build a game within the traditional game industry that is far beyond the industry's tropes. The effects of climate change on an Alaskan village could be an apt metaphor for the gaming industry itself. The acting is well done and the production is top notch. It's a good story and definitely worth a listen. 

However, as others have noted, "Game Over" is a bit heavy-handed at times. Perhaps in an effort to make the story realistic, the main characters came across as rigid and not very likeable. In this regard, it's reminiscent of HBO's "Silicon Valley" which has gone from comedy to quasi-documentary, and is full of characters you'd never root for, let alone want to work with. Nonetheless, "Game Over" is a thought-provoking story (and meta story) with a clever ending. 

I believe the show is available streamed from the BBC for 30 days in the UK, Canada and US.

If you've given the show a listen, please share your comments below.

 

 


The NaNoWriMo Marathon

Z-Machine-Matter-front

This year, I was fortunate to be able to participate in National Novel writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The idea behind the Z-Machine Matter had been kicking around for a couple of years getting scant attention. I knew there was a good story to be written, but I just never seemed to have the time to focus on it. This year I was had the time and the inclination.

This was my first NaNoWriMo, but I was not going in unprepared. I had a set of characters, and the basics of a noir murder mystery story crystal clear in my foggy optimist mind. Nonetheless, I spent much of October writing detailed character backgrounds as well as rough outline of the beats in the story, using a three-act structure.

I had previously spent a lot of time researching the time frame of the story (coldwar era 1950) and some of the events of that time, specifically the arrest of Russian atomic spies Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and David Greenglass. And as anyone who has fallen into the wikipedia rabbit hole, I did extensive research into a few related areas such as Operation Paperclip (the recruitment of German scientists by the US Army in 1945) and the Venona Project (MI5 and the FBI's joint cooperation to decrypt top-secret Russian cables). Of course, research can easily become a distraction from writing, but I was glad I had done this work previously.  

Z-machine matter wordcount graph 11-28So a few observations on NaNoWriMo... First of all: it works! Yes, there's something to making a commitment to write 50,000 words in a month and then just getting up and writing every frigging day. While I believe only a small percentage of people who sign up for NaNoWriMo hit the 50,000 word target, every writer can benefit from the discipline of writing every day.

The NaNoWriMo approach is based on the idea of just writing for 30 days and not worrying about editing until later. While some might say this puts too much emphasis on quantity as opposed to quality, I think it does serve to help you build momentum. Writing and editing are two different things and for many beginning writers, it's better to just get the words down on paper and worry about making them perfect later on.

However, I think it's also important to note, there's no way I could have written 50,000 words without a solid understanding of my characters and a decent outline. Yes, the story deviates slightly from what I planned, but for the most part the outline worked. And it made it much easier for me to just focus on writing scenes. When I did run into problems in week three, it was because the later sections of my outline were too vague. I wrote every day except for Thanksgiving and even then it was only because I was flat on my back sick with a stomach virus.

Z-machine matter twitter horowotizThere's also a sense of community from having several hundred thousand word nerds working in solitude together for a month. There's some nice #NaNoWriMo camaraderie on Twitter. Heck, I even got a shout out from my favorite author Anthony Horowitz

So what's next?

The story is roughly 54,000 words at this point. And while it is complete, I think it is probably about 10-15k too short. I expect that I can make some of that up during editing. There's a subplot around a historical document that needs shoring up and I can imagine that taking at least 5,000 words. And some sections are probably heavy on dialog and short on descriptions. I'd also like to add some historical documents (newspapers, letters, diaries, journals, telegrams) to the book. 

My expectation is that it will take at least three rounds of editing to complete this story and I'll need an outside editor to help in some areas. My friend Tal tells me he basically re-wrote his book The Punch Escrow three times during editing before it was finished. 

And of course there's the whole debate about traditional publishing versus self-publishing as well as various hybrid models that I will need to research. I would love to get input from other authors who have successfully pursued these options. Feel free to leave comments below or otherwise get in touch with me.


Magpie Murders

Magpie murders

I'd been looking forward to Anthony Horowitz's "Magpie Murders" since I first read about it in an interview in 2014. Horowitz is a prolific author and television screenwriter ("Agatha Christie's Poirot," "Midsomer Murders," and the classic "Foyle's War") and I've long been a fan. He's written two authorized Sherlock Holmes books ("House of Silk," "Moriarty"), a James Bond Novel ("Trigger Mortis") and a series of novels for young adults.

"Magpie Murders" is a book within a book, and both are excellent murder mysteries. The story kicks off in present day with Susan Ryeland, a book editor at London's Cloverleaf Books, getting a new manuscript from prized mystery novelist Alan Conway. It's the ninth book in their best-selling detective Atticus Pünd series, set in 1955 rural England. The book then switches to this straightforward murder story, filled with suspects straight out of a classic Golden Age mystery. Horowitz knows how to write a compelling pastiche! But just as the brilliant Pünd is on the brink of announcing the solution to the murder, the manuscript comes to an abrupt end. And now there's a whole different level of mystery for Ryeland to solve in order to find the missing pages that provide the answer. The present day mystery is darker and parallels the Pünd story in curious ways, with characters, places and complications in the 1955 story rippling into the present. I found Ryeland's present-day mystery to be more fast-paced and complex than the "inner" story, but both stories work well and they are intertwined like a crossword puzzle.

One of the stories hinges on, what might be called, a cupid stunt, which may leave some readers cold. Nonetheless, it fits well with the characters Horowitz has created. In a postscript interview, Horowitz spells out exactly what he thinks of his fictional author Alan Conway; as much as he loves the mystery genre, he does not always love the characters he creates. 

"Magpie Murders" is a delightful novel for fans of Golden Age mysteries and puzzle stories. I don't know if Horowitz really did provide all the clues necessary to solve the murder in the first three pages but he created a deuce of a whodunit.

Did you solve the mystery? If so, let me know in the comments below.


Sinclair ZX Spectrum: A Visual Compendium

Sinclair zx visual

Following up on my prior post on The Art of Atari, fans of British retro computing will want to get a copy of the fascinating "Sinclair ZX Spectrum: A Visual Compendium" published by Bitmap Books in the UK. Though not as comprehensive as "The Art of Atari" the book provides extensive artwork on 100 classic ZX Spectrum games, as well as interviews with the designers and artists behind these games.

It's a heavy-duty 300 page book available in high quality paperback or luxurious hardcover editions. For fans of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, it is truly in a league of its own. Luckily fans of the equally popular Commodore 64 are not left out; there's an equally compelling Commodore 64 Visual Compendium for them.


Art of Atari

Art atari

If you're a fan of ''70s era retro computing, or graphic design in general, you should check out Dan Lapetino's "Art of Atari."  First of all, it's worth noting this is a hefty book; it clocks in at just about 300 full color pages in a nice hardback binding. And this book covers everything you could wish for from this era. It includes plenty of over-the-top cheesy Atari game box art, artist profiles, ads, screenshots (which never even come close to living up to the box art), rough drafts, artist notes, industrial design and more. The book skews more towards the console side of Atari than the personal computer era and largely stops at the end of the '70s. That said, it includes profiles on the Atari 400 and 800 which were released in 1979.

I was more of an Apple ][ than Atari, but it's clear the influence Atari design esthetic influenced an entire industry. And some of the artists profiled were influential in the Apple world also. But if Lapetino or anyone else decides to create a book like this that covers Apple in the late '70s and early '80s, I'm all in.

"Art of Atari" is available on Amazon and most good bookstores. And coming up soon, I'll take a look at a similar book focused on early '80s UK home computing...


Last chance to support Bob Bates' IF Kickstarter

Thaumistry

Infocom author and gaming legend Bob Bates is running a Kickstarter project to support his new IF game "Thaumistry: In Charm's Way." Bates was the only non-Infocom employee who wrote for the company with two classic IF titles to his credit ("Sherlock" and "Arthur"). Bates also co-founded Legend Entertainment, and published a series of innovative graphical adventures that married some of the best elements of parser driven interactive fiction with good graphics, publishing titles such as "Timequest", "Spellcasting 101" and others. 

The Kickstarter project has met it's funding goal, but is now on it's way to stretch goals that would enable the development of digital feelies and possibly porting to more platforms. 

If you're interested in modern IF or want to pay homage to one of the original IF authors, I encourage you to help fund this project. It ends late tonight Feb 21. 


Chris Huang's Peterkins Game

Peterkins game 2

Noted IF author Chris Huang is back in action with a short piece of IF called "Mustard, Music and Murder."  Though the title seems a bit eccentric, maybe that's the point. This is a tie-in with Huang's golden age detective novel "Murder at the Veteran's Club" which is available for pre-order at Inkshares. Although I expect this game to be shorter than his previous murder mystery "An Act of Murder", I'm sure it will be a lot of fun. 

"Murder at the Veteran's Club" is published via InkShares and is at the half-way point of achieving it's pre-order goal. For $10 you get the book and help an author who has contributed so much to IF. Heck if you're a first time buyer at Inkshares, you can even get $5 off. I hope many IF fans will step up and support this creative project. Don't just tweet it, buy it.

You can get regular updates at Chris's blog.


Murder at the Veteran's Club

Murder at the veterans club

IF community member, author and reviewer Chris Huang, is publishing a book called "Murder at the Veteran's Club" that looks to be a classic "golden age" detective novel in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton, P.D. James, Agatha Christie and others. 

His award winning "An Act of Murder" remains one of my favorite IF games and helped rekindle my interest in the genre. If you haven't played it, you really should. And if you like it half as much as I did, you'll jump over to Inkshares to pre-order a copy of "Murder at the Veteran's Club" right now! Chris has been a huge contributor to the IF community and I'm sure he'll appreciate the vote of confidence. 

The book is published via InkShares and so if there aren't enough pre-orders, the book doesn't get published. (And perhaps worse things though, I'm not sure.)  If everyone pitched in, I'm sure we could put this book over the threshold this week. And I really want to read it.

You can also get regular updates at Chris's blog.


Underground Radio - An Open Source Rock Opera

Zack and rob studio 4x3 with titles

My buddy Rob and I are almost finished with our epic '70s homage rock opera Underground Radio. It's been nearly two years in the making. It includes 20 original songs, 4 vocalists, a slew of vintage amp simulations, guitar effects, hammond b3 organ, handclaps, cowbells, backwards guitars and more. Also we even got a 30 piece symphony orchestra!

Underground Radio is inspired by music of The Pretty Things, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Clash, The Jam, The Stranglers, Television, Pink Floyd and others. It's set in a dystopian future under an evil surveillance government, 50 years of winter, rock music is illegal. But these two guys try to jam the government's systems with rock and roll, yada yada yada.

All of the songs will be published under a Creative Commons license so they can be used royalty free by anyone in their own creative projects, like films, games, you name it.

We've posted the project on Kickstarter to raise funds for the final mixing and mastering. Any contribution, even $5-6 is greatly appreciated. (If you want to splurge, we'll write a song for you or take you out for lunch!)  If you can help spread the word on social media, that's much appreciated.

Once this is done, I'll get back to my other creative project: The Z-Machine Matter.

Update: The music and Libretto are now available for free download at www.rock-opera.com